He Wasn’t Centered on Personal Growth

When Reb Yisroel Polotzker heard about the greatness of gemilus chassadim, he didn’t look for opportunities to grow himself, but to give someone else the mitzvah. In a world filled with hyper-self-centeredness, it’s refreshing to hear such stories and be reminded of what we’re capable of.

By Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier

Reb Yisroel, a storekeeper from Polotzk, once traveled to his Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek in Lubavitch for Shabbos Parshas Vayeira. During his stay, he listened to a maamar in which the Rebbe explained that “Avraham Avinu was generous – with his body, his money and his soul.” In connection to this, the Tzemach Tzedek quoted a teaching of the Pardes in the name of Sefer HaBahir: “The Attribute of Kindness complained to the Holy One, blessed be He: [‘Master of the Universe! Ever since Avraham has been on earth, I have not been required to perform my tasks, for Avraham is there to function instead of me!’]”

To this, the Tzemach Tzedek added that Avraham Avinu, down here on earth, by means of his acts of material kindness, substituted the Sefirah of Chessed of the World of Atzilus! From this it is clear that Avraham Avinu was superior to the Attribute of Chessed of Atzilus, because if Chessed of Atzilus were to be down here, it would not be able to vest itself in materiality – whereas Avraham Avinu did draw it down into materiality. And this was enabled by the superiority of an [embodied] soul, in the spirit of the mystical principle of beirurim.

The whole scholarly maamar was beyond the grasp of this good, simple man, but those words permeated him so profoundly that he repeated them to himself until he had them memorized.

As was the custom in those times, whenever a chossid returned from Lubavitch, the townspeople would welcome him home with a comradely farbrengen at which they would ask him what he had heard and what he had seen by the Rebbe.

“Could you repeat the maamar for us?”

“No,” he answered, “I didn’t understand it. But I can repeat the few words that I memorized.”

This he did, and then went off as usual to his stall at the marketplace. Once there, he called on his friend, Nachman the storekeeper, to ask for a gemilus chessed, a free loan. Not that he needed the money; he just wanted to give Nachman the zechus, the meritorious opportunity, to fulfill the mitzvah of gemilus chassadim. He then did the same with Yosef the storekeeper, and from then on, day after day, they would all borrow money from each other.

During Reb Yisroel’s next visit to Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek stepped out of his study, entered the beis midrash, and pointing to Reb Yisroel, asked one of the gabbaim who he was. The gabbai did not know, because Reb Yisroel was a simple man, not one of the well-known chassidim. The Tzemach Tzedek asked his shamash, Chayim Ber, who said, “That’s Reb Yisroel the storekeeper from Polotzk,” and the Tzemach Tzedek asked that Reb Yisroel be invited to enter his study.

When the Tzemach Tzedek asked him about his daily doings, he said that he rose at five, read Tehillim, drank tea, chopped the day’s firewood, went off to the local beis midrash to daven, learned a chapter of Mishnayos, went home, had a bite of breakfast, and went to the marketplace. Late in the afternoon he returned to the beis midrash for Minchah, listened in to the daily shiur in Ein Yaakov, davened Maariv, and went home.

The Tzemach Tzedek probed: “Nu, and what about tzedakah?”

Reb Yisroel answered that he was a poor man and had nothing to give – until the Tzemach Tzedek steered the conversation in the direction of his daily custom with regard to gemilus chassadim.

The Rebbe Maharash, who was particularly close to his father and lived in the same housing complex, later took the liberty of asking his father, “What did you see in him?”

The Tzemach Tzedek replied, “Over Yisroel the storekeeper I saw a pillar of light – from the Divine Attribute of Chessed of the World of Atzilus…”[1]


There’s a powerful subtlety to this story.

After Reb Yisroel heard about the greatness of gemilus chassadim, it would have made perfect sense for him to go look for opportunities to fulfill this great mitzvah.

But doing so would also be somewhat self-centered. He’d be focused on his own growth and his own pursuit of a mitzvah. Giving someone a gemach would make him great, but he wasn’t looking to bolster himself, he wanted to help another Yid! For this reason, Reb Yisroel asked his friend for a loan so that his friend would receive the great mitzvah of giving a gemach.

And it was this selflessness that made him worthy of the Divine light.

In this week’s sedra we are given the mitzvah of giving interest-free loans to a fellow Yid. In a world filled with hyper-self-centeredness, it’s refreshing to hear stories like these and be reminded of what we’re truly capable of.

[1] Sefer Hasichos 5701 Shabbos Parshas Vayera (Kehos translation).

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